When we interviewed young adults for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, we usually asked them about their views on the appropriate time to start having sex. While devout churchgoers often said that ideally it’d be best to wait until marriage, others mocked that idea. How can you know if you’re really compatible if you haven’t slept together? Would you buy a car without taking it for a test drive?
And even among Christians, we’ve heard stories about possible hazards of abstinence. We’ve heard friends convinced that their Christian friends are getting married simply because they can’t wait any longer to have sex. And we’ve heard other friends talk about lackluster honeymoons because one spouse feels guilty about sexual activity. After constantly saying “no” to sex, it can be hard for abstinence-minded Christians to flip the switch after the wedding day and embrace the beauty of the marital union.
So with such attitudes and stories forming our contemporary relationship folklore, the word chastity gets a bad rap. Sometimes it is easy to forget that chastity is not just an arbitrary “no”; it is a “no” for the sake of a “yes.” If you think about it, any good thing precludes its alternatives: vacationing in Europe means that you will not be climbing mountains in New Zealand (at least not until another time); getting married means saying no to the single life; joining the football team means you will not be in the marching band (unless you are like one adventurous tuba player that I know). In all of these cases, you say “no” to one thing to say “yes” to something you value even more.
Even in Christian circles, we seem to be constantly meditating on the “no.” Just think of the word abstinence. But let’s meditate on that “yes” for a little bit. What is it that chastity says “yes” to? Let’s start by thinking about the meaning of our sexuality and the meaning of sex. Once we mediate on that, we can then better understand the meaning (and great beauty) of chastity.
The Meaning of Our Sexuality
By sexuality, we do not mean the act of intercourse, but rather, our nature as male and female. “God created mankind in his image. In the image of God he created them; male and female, he created them” (Genesis 1:27). A philosophy professor of ours once pointed out that when Scripture talks about man being made in God’s image, it specifically mentions that God made us male and female. That’s because male and female together reveal the image of God. Men reveal certain aspects of God’s nature — like his father-like provision — and women reveal other aspects — like His mother-like tenderness. And without both sexes, we would not know what it means to be fully human. Man, by himself, is a solitary creature and does not discover his full humanity apart from woman; likewise for woman.
Remember what Adam was like before Eve came along? If you’ve ever seen the U2 music video for the song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” then you might imagine Adam like Bono, wandering the city streets (or the garden rows in Eden) searching and longing for companionship. It’s not a coincidence that the first instance of poetry we find in Scripture is when Adam discovers Eve. He exclaims, “At last, this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam finally found what he was looking for.
The truth that God made Adam and Eve male and female, and that he made them for each other, tells us something about who God is. In other words, our bodies are mirrors reflecting God’s nature. The fact that male bodies and female bodies are complementary — that they literally fit together as if they were designed to be one flesh — shows us that we are not meant to be alone. What does this show us about God? It shows us that God is not alone either — God is a Trinity of love. Of course, God is one substance, but from early on, the Christian tradition has insisted that God is also three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, God is not a solitary individual; God is a communion of persons. The Father eternally gives himself in love to the Son, that the Son eternally gives himself back in love to the Father, and therewith proceeds the Holy Spirit.
If God were not a Trinity of persons, He could not be love, as 1 John 4:8 tells us that He is. Think about it. Can one solitary individual embody the meaning of love? If God were alone, how could He be love? There’s nobody to love. That’s why God is a Trinity.
And that’s the significance of our sexuality: Our maleness and femaleness reveal that we are created in the image of God who invites us to share in the very love that animates the Trinity. Our sexuality reveals that we are not made for ourselves; we are made to give ourselves in love to God and to others. As John Paul II said, “Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.” We find ourselves when we lose ourselves. We are made for communion.
The Meaning of Sex
We’ve meditated a little bit on the significance of our sexuality, or the reality that we are either male or female. Now, let’s meditate on the meaning of sex. Yes, sex.
Did you ever wonder why sex can become such an addiction? As the philosopher Peter Kreeft says it, “No one gets addicted to paper clips or worships mud. You can’t make a religion out of washing machines. But you can make one out of sex.”
Why? Because Kreeft goes on to point out, sex is a very good thing — and “only very good things can become addictions or idolatries.”
But why is sex such a good thing?
Because it reveals the meaning of life.
As Kreeft notes, the last event in human history — the final end toward which our hearts beat and all history moves toward — is a marriage: the wedding supper of the Lamb, where Christ (the Lamb) weds the church. In other words, not only are we humans made for communion with each other as our sexuality as male and female shows us, but we are made for communion with God.
Communion with God is our destiny — and sex gives us a glimpse of it. In this way, human sex is an icon or image of the inner life of the Trinity: Just as the Father gives himself in love to the Son, and from there proceeds the Holy Spirit, so a human lover gives himself to his beloved, and a child proceeds as the fruit of their love. It’s as if in contemplating the union of male and female, we little children who are barely tall enough to see through the glass dimly, are pulled up enough to the dim glass window to where we can get a glimpse of the dynamic love among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we have eyes to see, we discover that sex has a language that tells of the hidden, inexpressible mysteries of God — and of our ultimate destiny.
For just as sex reveals something about the ultimate point toward which all of history is heading, so it reveals that the path to happiness and meaning in this life is in giving, not in taking. To make love with another person is to say to that person, “All that I have is yours; I give you my whole being.” It is a complete and radical gift of self.
Of course, sex is supposed to be about the mutual gift of self. We can abuse the meaning of sex by using another person for pleasure. But when man and woman honor each other, they recognize that to have sex is to enact a language of the body: By uniting their bodies, lovers tell each other, “I am completely and utterly yours for the rest of my days.” To give one’s body in sex to another is one of the most radical signs of love. Our lips may be silent, but our bodies are saying, “I love you.”
Further, it’s worth noting here that the hope of union with God as the end toward which all history moves and our hearts beat is precisely what has motivated countless celibate men and women throughout history to consecrate themselves entirely to God now. The single person has the opportunity to anticipate and to be a living witness now of the total union to God which all God’s children will eventually realize — and a union of which sex is merely a reflection. That’s why Christopher West says, “In no way does authentic Christian celibacy involve rejection, devaluation or repression of human sexuality. Rather, it points to the ultimate purpose and meaning of it.” And of course the unmarried person has the further opportunity of giving himself in love in a special way — to become a spiritual mother or father to others and in so doing, to be spiritually fruitful. Whether married or unmarried, our call is to totally give ourselves in love to God and to our neighbor.
In other words, while sex is an especially vivid reminder of our call to the radical gift of self, married people do not have the monopoly on self-gift. Indeed, sex reminds us that while it obviously looks different, the call to communion with others is our shared call as persons made in the image of God.
The Meaning of Chastity
So our male and female bodies are a sign — an embarrassingly concrete sign! — of God’s loving invitation to communion.
Chastity says “yes” to the true meaning of our sexuality and sex, because it is the virtue that frees lovers to tell the truth with their bodies. To put it negatively, chastity saves lovers from telling body lies.
To tell the truth with our bodies in the act of sex is to say, “I really am giving my whole being to you and to you alone.” To give your body to the beloved while at the same time withholding something from him or her — that is a body lie.
For example, if a couple has sex before they have made the commitment of marriage, their bodies are making promises to each other regardless of their intentions. If this couple breaks up, the partners will probably find themselves feeling betrayed. If a man has sex with a woman without committing to her for life, he is lying to her. With his body he is saying the opposite of what he actually intends. Even if two people agree to have casual sex or to be friends with benefits, they are lying to themselves. Sex means something, and they are pretending that it means nothing.
So while having sex before saying the marriage vows is a kind of lie, chastity helps us see the truth. Chastity frees the lover to really see his beloved. Sex before commitment can cloud one’s judgment and make it hard to discern the reality of the relationship and the character of the other person. Through all of the spontaneous sexual desires that we feel for the other person — desires that, if not rightly ordered, threaten to derail love — chastity is the special virtue that enables us to see the other person clearly: We are able to sincerely affirm the other person for all that he or she is and not merely for the sexual pleasure that they give us.
How Far is Too Far?
When we realize the point of chastity, we also realize that questions like “how far is too far?” are entirely missing the point.
When we were dating, we often thought it’d be nice to have a handbook specifying which behaviors were pure and which were impure. But after talking to married couples and friends who were older and wiser than us, we came to realize that chastity doesn’t ask the question, “What can I get away with? How far can I go?” Rather, it raises our sights to the good of the other person (not what we can get out of them). It makes us ask, “How can I truly love this person?” It recognizes that physical intimacy may be a sign of love, but it can also be a way of exploiting the other person’s body. Chastity reminds us to constantly check the attitudes and motivations of our hearts.
What does this mean practically? For us, it meant that our physical intimacy progressed along with the level of commitment in the relationship. I (Amber) remember when David first held my hand, about a month into our dating relationship. The next day, we were riding on the bus to the airport to head home for Christmas break, and David clasped my hand and said, “This is sacramental.” In other words, holding hands was a physical sign of an inner reality — it was a sign of David’s intention to get to know me better and his deepening care for me as a person. We thought of our first kiss in the same way — it was a sign of a progressively deepening love. This is not to say that we never made mistakes or acted selfishly in our physical affection, but we did find this principle to be incredibly helpful: Physical intimacy ought to follow level of commitment. Physical intimacy is a sign of an inner intimacy (not the other way around).
Saying “Yes” to God’s Invitation
At its essence, chastity is a “yes” to God’s loving invitation to enter into genuine communion with another person. We all long for true love — and chastity is a guardian of true love.
While chastity involves “abstinence,” reducing chastity to abstinence fails to remind us that we are abstaining from something for the sake of something greater. Chastity — far from dampening or hindering our sexuality and our romantic relationships — is actually the deepest affirmation of our sexuality and sexual love as it was meant to be. Chastity says “yes” to sex in its fullest, truest form.
Copyright 2011 David and Amber Lapp. All rights reserved.